(photo credit: AP)
An urgent discussion must be held on how to get those parents who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated against serious childhood diseases to change their minds, Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, head of the National Council for the Child, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Wednesday.
Israel used to have one of the highest vaccination rates in the Western world, Kadman said, but it was slipping due to refusal by parents in certain sectors and locations, including among haredim, immigrants from the US and those who want only "natural treatment" for their youngsters.
The measles outbreak over the last five or six months among certain haredim - after a London hassid who was infected with the virus exposed many attending a large Jerusalem wedding - was just one indication of the problem, said Kadman. "The question is what to do about parents who refuse. We thought of a law that would require all children to be vaccinated and punish parents who do not agree, or to give positive incentives, such as increased National Insurance Institute children's allowances. We could also prevent unvaccinated children from being admitted to a kindergarten or school. Numerous doctors have told us they have seen children with serious conditions because they are not protected by vaccine," he said.
"Some parents fear the vaccine will cause harm, even though such connections have been disproved and cases of disability from vaccinations are extremely rare - much less common than dangers from not being vaccinated," said Kadman, who is a social worker by training and founded the independent National Council for the Child 20 years ago.
"There are those who say 'God will protect the children, not the vaccine.' They think the fact that the majority of children are vaccinated will protect them. But this is a selfish attitude, as the lower the vaccination rate in the general population, the greater the risk that the disease will break out among unvaccinated children," he said.
The Health Ministry has tried to persuade parents by going to haredi rabbis; some of them have advised their followers to get vaccinated as a result of the measles scare.
A decade or two ago, Black Hebrews in the Negev refused to vaccinate children, but after a few died of the measles, they agreed to hold their arms out for the shots.
Public health authorities "previously had the luxury of doing nothing about those who refuse, "but now is the time to open discussion on the issue. The Beersheba Conference on the Child, which the council is organizing next week with Ben-Gurion University and the Beersheba Municipality, will devote a whole session to the problem of parents who refuse to allow vaccination," Kadman said.
Dr. Itamar Grotto, the new head of public health services in the Health Ministry, said he did not think a law could be passed to make refusal a criminal act, as he "[doesn't] know of any country" that has passed such legislation. Perhaps, he said, one can prevent admission to kindergartens and schools, but this is a problem with haredim, as they run independent educational systems where the ministry had little influence.
Grotto added that most Bnei Brak children and those in many Jerusalem haredi neighborhoods were fully vaccinated, but others were not. He estimated that about 7 percent of children were not vaccinated.
There are an average of 10 new cases of measles among haredim each week; while it is harmless to most, it can lead to fatal complications.
Grotto said he would initiate a discussion of the matter in the ministry executive.
Yehuda Cohen, director of the Association for Public Health - a nonprofit organization that for the last half year has been responsible for the national school health service, told the Post he agreed that parents should somehow be required to allow vaccinations.
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